By Anne E. Kornblut and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 22, 2007
CONCORD, N.H., Dec. 21 -- After months of discussion within her campaign over how heavily she should draw on her husband's legacy, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is closing out her Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns in a tight embrace of Bill Clinton's record, helping fuel a debate about the 1990s with Sen. Barack Obama that she thinks she can win.
As part of the Clinton strategy, the former president is playing an increasingly prominent public role as an advocate for his wife. He appears to have overcome concerns within the campaign over how closely she should associate her candidacy with his time in office and over whether his appearances could draw attention away from her.
Both Clintons are making the case that theirs was a co-presidency -- an echo of Bill Clinton's controversial statement during the 1992 campaign that voters would get "two for the price of one" if they elected him. At times, the former president has seemed to cast the current race as a referendum on his administration.
Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), the Democratic front-runner nationally but facing strong challenges in Iowa and New Hampshire from Obama, has shifted her emphasis repeatedly over the past few months as the senator from Illinois made inroads in the two states. She has tried to show a more "human" side, and on Friday brought along her daughter, Chelsea, and her mother to events here titled "The Hillary I Know."
She has tried to co-opt the message of change from Obama, declaring that she has been "working for change" her entire life. Over the past week, she injected the phrase "new beginning" into her stump speech.
But the unchanging core of Clinton's message is her experience, and in recent days she has presented the election as a binary choice: between a competent, experienced Clinton and novices such as Obama. "That's the kind of logic that got us George Bush in the first place," she said this week in Iowa.
And the main basis for her assertion is the time she spent as first lady. Bill Clinton is hitting the theme hard as the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire draws closer, pointing back to the 1990s, citing his record as his wife's, referring to the work "we" did in office and, for the most part, brushing past or ignoring the tumult of those years.
Nowhere is the back-to-the-future approach more visible than here in the state where the then-Arkansas governor overcame a scandal to become the self-proclaimed "comeback kid" in the 1992 Democratic primary and to finish second to former senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.
Campaigning here on Friday, Hillary Clinton recalled that voters complained back then about lacking health care, fearing unemployment and facing home foreclosures. "And we listened and we acted and we had the best economy that our country has seen in a generation. And now I'm back in New Hampshire" hearing many of the same complaints, she said.
Obama has made challenging the 1990s a mainstay of his platform, saying it is time to "turn the page" on the partisanship -- and implicitly the scandals -- of the Clinton era. This is a major part of his case that he is the most electable Democrat, able to expand the electoral base to states where Hillary Clinton is still viewed as polarizing.
But the Clintons regard any discussion of the Nineties to be good for them, evoking memories of a booming economy and a time when the United States enjoyed greater popularity around the world.
Clinton is preparing to make a closing argument to Iowa and New Hampshire voters that would center on the challenges of the presidency, arguing that only she can be trusted to handle the surprises and rigors of the job, according to her senior advisers. That emphasis, on her experience and her track record, makes the previous Clinton administration a vital part of her case.
Right after Christmas, these advisers said, Clinton plans to make the case on national security grounds, citing the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as evidence that unexpected crises can arise. The argument is in some ways similar to the one President Bush made in 2004, when he campaigned on what he described as his proven leadership in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks and said the terrorist threat called for keeping him in the job. But Clinton is playing on more than just national security concerns, discussing economic security, as well.
"Time to pick a president" is the new theme, which will be unveiled in Iowa next week.
The idea of a restoration -- or as the campaign puts it, a "new beginning" -- is particularly strong in the speeches Bill Clinton is giving in Iowa and New Hampshire on his wife's behalf.
On Thursday night in Holderness, N.H., the former president returned again and again in his hour-long speech to the achievements of his administration as proof that his wife would be able to bring results if she were elected. Several times, he cited the statistics on the economic gains of the 1990s -- the rise in family income, the decline in poverty and in the number of uninsured, and the increase in students obtaining college aid ("I still know the numbers," he said).
He contrasted these gains with what has occurred during the Bush administration, casting the past seven years as a dismal detour or regression in the march of progress that began in the 1990s and would continue with Hillary Clinton's election. "Hillary says, 'My vision is that America must make a new beginning by first rebuilding the middle-class dream,' " he said.
For all his talk about the 1990s, though, the former president does not go into great detail about the role his wife played in his administration, instead simply leaving the impression that she was part of the team that brought about the decade's gains.
He credits her with helping create the Children's Health Insurance Program, after her push for universal health care failed, and he talks about her trips abroad, building ties in foreign countries and speaking out on controversial subjects such as women's rights in Beijing and female genital mutilation in Africa. He briefly mentions her assistance in achieving peace in Northern Ireland and the Balkans.
At times, his pitch for his wife is focused so much on his own accomplishments as president that it almost sounds as if he himself is running for reelection. In a two-hour interview Thursday with the Concord Monitor, he referred to his having made a "terrible mistake" while president, an apparent reference to the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, and then added: "The voters will have to make their own judgments about that. I've done everything I could, first of all, to try to be a good president and, secondly, to try to be a good after-president."